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Guerneville’s Hi Five Deserves, Yes, a High Five

Hi Five Restaurant in Guerneville.

The young Asian couple was eyeing our seats at the counter so hungrily that my companion and I could practically feel their eyes burning into the backs of our heads.

“Leave,” their brainwaves insisted. “You’ve had your fun, now it’s our turn.”

There is another dining room in Guerneville’s Hi Five, in the back, and decorated like a weathered wood-wall lodge set with a dozen tables. It’s cozy with its fireplace, and entertaining as guests crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the goings-on in the neighboring dive bar that shares a doorway.

But most customers come to Hi Five hoping to snag a stool at the front counter, where they can watch the buzz of the kitchen, or in the few booths against the front wall, to watch sidewalk scenery of passersby on Main Street. The counter is also the best place to ogle the parade of dishes being delivered to other diners.

I finished the last speck of my market vegetable, fried egg and seaweed bibimbap ($20), licked up the last shred of Kurobuta pork spicy with Gochujang fermented red chile sauce from the bowl, and gave up my seat.

When Hi Five opened last November, its menu caused quite a stir for its double-take dishes like crispy Dinosaur kale and flying lotus root chips sprinkled in Pop Rocks candy ($5), plus pork belly bao buns with root beer Jello ($10). I admit I wondered what in the world owner David Blomster and chef/co-owner Eugene Birdsall were thinking.

Blomster also owns a small art gallery in town, called Studio Blomster, while Birdsall grew up cooking traditional Korean dishes with his mother. The duo met at boon eat + drink across the street, where Blomster had been the manager for the past 3-1/2 years and Birdsall was chef.

Yet now, I can say that Hi Five is one of the most interesting restaurants to be found in Sonoma County, boasting layers of unexpected flavors that work together brilliantly.

I’m not the only one who feels this way, apparently — the Korean/American diner is often standing-room-only as soon as it opens at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and the vibe is almost as flavor-packed as the food, drawing everyone from hipsters to hippies to families with small children.

Serving dinner only, the restaurant operates as a permanent pop-up inside Pat’s, a traditional American eatery that has been family owned and operated since 1945. Pat’s sends out breakfast and lunch, but after the eggs Benedicts and BLTs are cleared away, Hi Five takes over.

The décor sits in nowhere land, a diner-retro style boasting a row of individual boxes of Frosted Flakes next to a small milk fridge, but also a large screen print of a snarling Asian-style tiger above the kitchen pass-through.

The attentive staff, dressed in street clothes, doesn’t sit still for a second, though the kitchen takes its time with the thoughtfully crafted recipes and sophisticated white plate and bowl presentations that would be at home in a fancy restaurant.

Playing on the name, the menu is broken down into five categories with five items in each, all priced in increments of five that start at $5 and top out at $25, for the Hi Five “surprise weekly special.”

And special it is — one evening, I enjoyed a delicate platter of red baby mackerel paired with kimchi potatoes, maitake mushrooms, and ssamjang, a thick, spicy dipping paste.

A $5 mix-and-match is a great way to begin … and with an open mind. Pierogies are a strange, playful success, the dumplings stuffed with potato, fiery kimchi and salty cotija cheese with a slick of plum sauce.

A cold beer goes well with fried Sonoma brinery pickles served atop Sausalito Springs watercress with a side of kimchi aioli, or handcut fries doctored with garlic, a rainbow of Korean chiles and more kimchi aioli.

The signature is the KFC (Korean Fried Crack, $15), and it’s serious stuff, bringing a half chicken dunked in sweet batter and deep fried, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, a flurry of fiery-to-mild chiles, toast drenched in butter, and a superb crispy radish-cabbage coleslaw in a light vanilla dressing. Sipping a glass of Chardonnay and listening to the modern music pulsing the walls, it’s easy to linger.

My companion used knife and fork to eat his Snake River hot dog topped in kalbi barbecue and kimchi aioli plus a pretty salad of pickled daikon, carrots, cilantro and mint ($10), while I employed chopsticks to tackle the big, beautiful plate of pan-fried trout with gai lan broccoli, maitake mushrooms, hot chiles and XO sauce over sushi rice ($20).

On another visit, my friend and I dug into kimchi pancakes dotted with spring onions, kale and oysters for dipping in plum sauce ($10), and an enormous ceramic white bowl brimming with Tteokbokki ($15), a Korean street food that’s served here as a savory mélange of tempeh, braised eggplant, rice cakes, shiitakes, green onions and pungent Gochujang. To round out the meal: beef short rib kalbi barbecue paired with mac ’n’ sharp Cheddar cheese over buttered Wonder Bread ($10).

Here’s a high five to the chef, absolutely, and a salute to the value, too. The dishes are a remarkable bargain for the quality, and most diners will end up with take-out containers.

Details: Hi Five, 16236 Main St., Guerneville, 707-869-9904, www.facebook.com/hifivedine. Hours are 5 - 10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday.

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